The Bulls were hoping to find a little magic in Orlando. Instead, the Magic Wednesday went a long way toward making the Bulls disappear, or at least their playoff hopes in a crushing 98-91 Orlando victory.
The Bulls still hold onto the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference in a tie with Detroit at 31-33. But streaking Miami, winners of 20 of 24, and Milwaukee, winning eight of 11, now are a half game behind the Bulls and Pistons and ready to sweep past both.
The Bulls lost their third straight game, though the concern was how they did, and not only with yet another fourth quarter collapse. Having lost a 13-point third quarter lead and double digit margins in the first and second quarters, the Bulls faded with 14 fourth quarter points on 21.7 percent shooting, no starter but Jerian Grant scoring in the fourth quarter. It was the fourth consecutive game the Bulls scored fewer than 20 points in the fourth quarter.
Though it again was without injured Dwyane Wade and another makeshift lineup with Joffrey Lauvergne playing the entire fourth quarter and this time Nikola Mirotic and Michael Carter-Williams benched for the game.
Jimmy Butler, zero for five shooting in the fourth after missing morning practice ill, scored 21 points to lead the Bulls. He also had nine assists, but shot seven of 21 with five turnovers. Grant proved the most reliable offensive option with 13 points, making three of four three pointers. He is five of nine on threes in March and 50 percent on threes since Feb. 1. Cristiano Felicio had 11 points. But an energized reserve group in the first half faded in the second half with a total of nine points on three of 13 shooting. Rajon Rondo made two of those second half baskets.
Though the most concerning indictment was against a Magic team without center Nikola Vucevic, playing a small lineup and losers of 14 of their last 19. They dominated the Bulls on the boards, getting 15 offensive rebounds for a 17-7 margin on second chance points. They had a 27-5 edge in fast break points, at least 10 of those when the Magic ran down for layups after Bulls made baskets. Elfrid Payton had a triple double with 22 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists as Orlando improved to 24-41.
“When you have this last week of fourth quarters like we have… missed a couple of open shots, gave them a couple of easy ones on the other end, had some awful turnovers, couldn’t find a way to get a rebound to get it off and come down with pace,” lamented Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Getting off to a good start in the fourth quarter is very important (tied at 77 after three). I’ll have to look at a lot of things as far as what we’re going to do with the rotation. Obviously, when we get Dwyane back that’ll help. And hopefully we’ll get him back in the next game.”
It certainly figures to help as Wade, even if he also stops the ball with his dribbling at times, will step up and make shots and pull a team through with his leadership and poise. He missed the last two games with a quad injury. Perhaps if he plays, the Bulls don’t lose either after having comfortable early leads and suddenly they are taking about sixth in the East instead of 10th.
But the Bulls also continue to experiment with rotations and lineups, this time with Lauvergne getting his first substantial playing time, effective in the first half and lost in the second. Cameron Payne stumbled again and was benched late for Grant, who has proven the most reliable, at least on offense, among the young players. Denzel Valentine played a larger role and continues to shoot threes, all eight of his field goals—he made two—from three point range. It’s also made the Bulls switching defense schemes difficult with changing rotations so that there were brutal errors down the stretch.
Even as poorly as the Bulls played on offense, they still trailed 93-91 with under two minutes left. But they gave the Magic three offensive rebounds on one possession until Payton got a wide open layup. That came right after they let Aaron Gordon sneak in for an inbounds lob with less than a second on the shot clock and the Bulls bricking eight of 10 threes in the quarter with little ball movement or pace. Plus, Orlando players kept beating the Bulls to balls going out of bounds while Bulls players observed.
“Everybody is definitely on the same page,” assured Butler. “We talked about it after the game. We are all we got. Good, bad, we have a lot more games to play to put ourselves in position in which we have an opportunity (for a playoff spot). We have an opportunity. We just have to be better.”
It’s also true the way this unusual Bulls season has transpired with wins over many of the league’s best teams and losses to those seemingly playing out the season, like the Magic.
Though Miami and Milwaukee are coming fast and have been two of the league’s best second half teams, the Bulls have shown an ability to accept a challenge. Perhaps that’s where they are with now Houston, Boston, Charlotte, Memphis, Washington, Utah and Toronto the next seven games, all those teams pushing for playoff position and playing well.
That was the message last season, but it also was about this time last year the Bulls went into a slide, losing 14 of 23 and missing the playoffs. The danger remains again, though they have proven good enough on many occasions this season to pull themselves out of these slumps.
“We just have to do a better job of continuing to move without the ball,” said Rondo of the obvious fourth quarter isolation play. “Mental toughness. Have to find a way. Have to come in with the right mindset. You can’t pick and choose when you want to turn it on and off. Have to have a better mental focus. We’ve showed spurts of it; just have to be consistent. (Assistant coach) Pete Myers gave a great speech earlier and I think we listened to it in the first half, but second half we didn’t stick to the plan.”
That plan is routinely similar, to push the ball, which Rondo has been best at lately. With Rondo at the controls, the Bulls had a big time second quarter. Felicio was rolling in for scores from Rondo and then Bobby Portis converted a pair of jumpers as Butler fanned the ball out. This came after Lauvergne, a surprise first quarter player, had five late points with a three and the Bulls led 22-19 after one quarter. Orlando looked beaten and disinterested. Then the Bulls went ahead 50-39 and still led 53-43 at halftime with 19 second quarter bench points.
The Bulls took a 62-49 lead early in the third quarter on a Grant three and a pair of Robin Lopez jumpers. But you could also see the tentativeness settling in.
“I think it gets in our heads a little bit, it becomes mental,” Hoiberg said about finishing. “Sometimes it’s as simple as having a really good fourth quarter. Where you find a way to close out the game and hopefully that’ll happen soon. Obviously, fourth quarters have been a huge issue for us this last week, and if we want to have any chance playing beyond this regular season we’re going to have to get better.”
Again, the Bulls failed to get back even after made baskets and Payton had back to back scores. And suddenly with an Evan Fournier three it was tied at 77 after three quarters. It was setting up as a battle for survival with the Bulls 23rd in scoring and the Magic 29th and the Bulls 27th in shooting and the Magic 26th. Orlando is 28th in threes and the Bulls 30th. The Bulls are 29th in fourth quarter scoring and the Magic last.
The Bulls opened the fourth quarter with Valentine, Rondo, Payne and Lauverge throwing up bricks and Butler and Payne with turnovers, seven straight misses with three turnovers. Orlando wasn’t much better, though they took an 88-81 lead. The Bulls came back on a Rondo three and Grant driving score. Grant added another three and that last step back jumper to bring the Bulls within 93-91. But the Bulls could not get a rebound when they needed and wouldn’t make another shot.
“I will be in the gym working on putting the ball into the basket,” said Butler. “That is all I know how to do. That is all I have ever done, so I am sure Friday I will come out and get some baskets. Now we have to go win some games that no one thinks we can win. I think that is the only way to go about it. Win the games that we are supposed to win at home and sneak some on the road.”